Monday, October 20, 2008

Fairy Tales & the End of a Marriage - Friendship Endures

If Leif and Nikko's marriage had survived, and he were still alive, October 20th would have been their 13th anniversary. Sadly, that was not meant to be.

They only had three years together before he went into the army, some months during the summer of 1998 at Fort Drum, New York, and a few months in the late spring and summer of 1999 after he returned from service in Bosnia together.

All marriages face challenges, and unfortunately, love does not conquer all. We bring our children up on fairy tales about living happily ever after. All that has to happen, the stories show, is that two young people meet, fall in love, get married, and the future will be bright and beautiful.

We also feed them lovely stories about princes and knights rescuing damsels in distress. This is appealing to both men and women (not all of them, but many). A young woman can look forward to being chosen and "rescued" (taken away to a wonderful future of love) by her prince, and the young man glories in the prospect of shining in her eyes as the rescuer.

But these lovely fairy tales that so permeate our culture do nothing to help young lovers survive the very real trials of life.

Nikko and Leif faced those trials from the beginning, and only one of them was money. That was compounded by others, being far from family and friends for the first time in a place they hated, in a climate that was terrible for Leif's health. The final blow, though, was being separated. Many military marriages founder on separation, and although it wasn't the only factor, it was the decisive one for them, I think.

When Leif returned from Bosnia in the spring of 2000, with his health ruined by asthma, they also were faced with financial problems and difficulties adjusting to being together again. They were miserable.

Leif wrote to me in June that Nikko was going back to Kansas. She took the bus back late in the summer of 2000 and they were never together again.

Leif took the separation hard. He was extremely depressed, not only at losing Nikko, but at being alone in the army at Fort Drum, dealing with a sergeant who did not believe he had the health problems he did and treated him like dirt, and trying to deal with the army about both his health and eventually his boarding out of the service due to the asthma, and trying to keep up the household and clear it out when he left the service in May 2001. He contemplated suicide but ultimately overcame it, though he was a very sad and depressed man when he came home from the army, medically retired, in May 2001.

It was a sad time, and we ached for him. Nikko had been very unhappy, too, and it was so hard to see those two young lovers grown so far apart.

I remember telling Nikko when they got engaged (and told the same to Leif) that the very qualities that she found attracted her to him would be the hardest to live with. She found his strength and masculinity appealing, his superior aloofness, his knowledge and intelligence. He loved her volatility, her need for a strong man, her beauty and whimsicalness.

No one outside of a relationship can ever really know what goes on inside it, how two people help or hurt each other, how they make it work or how it falls apart, but Nikko told me she was leaving Leif because she wanted them to "stop hurting each other."

On March 23, 2008, just 17 days before he died, Leif wrote this to me in email:

"I find that first of all, sadly, most women have had very poor experiences with men. Many women are happy just to have a man that doesn't hit them and think that is a find. That is tragic but compared to most men I am a prince. I treat them well and am a gentleman. I am also very honest and I don't play games and women tend to trust me readily and I don't betray that trust. . . . They THINK they are in love with me. They feel more comfortable and secure with me than ever before . . . and they are sure they are in love with me.

"Then later....

"Once the euphoria of the beginning wears off they start to look at day to day life with Leif, then they see my flaws. I am independent. I am aloof. I am often insensitive. I also am usually stronger and need them a lot less than they need me. It turns out she realizes that I do not engage her like she wants me to. Then they realize I am not what they really need."

This is a rather dry analysis, but it's accurate. Leif could be very uncommunicative and withdrawn, aloof, as he puts it. He could be inconsiderate and blunt. He was reckless with money.

Nikko and Leif stayed in contact, saw each other, and remained friends. They were divorced on October 7, 2002. Legally, they were married almost exactly seven years, though they only spent a little over half of that time together.

Nikko surprised Leif and all of us by enlisting in the army in the spring of 2003. She wrote to him from basic training, and visited him when she returned to Kansas after basic. He was proud of her and saluted her when they said goodbye.

Nikko has made a career of the army, and Leif continued to be proud of her promotions and her progress. This photo of her was taken on April 29, 2008, when she had come all the way from Germany for Leif's Memorial Services to say goodbye to her friend. We were glad to see her, and touched that she wanted to be there.

We will always be sad that her marriage to Leif didn't last and provide them both with the happiness and emotional sustenance they needed, but we are proud of them for remaining friends.

We wish Sergeant "Nikko" (who no longer goes by that nickname) well in her life, her career, motherhood, and her marriage.

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